The story of Lazarus
‘He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”’ (Revelation 21:5)
How very reassuring that verse is, with nearly all of us confined to our homes and individual freedom curtailed so much that everyday life as we knew it, just a few days ago, is a thing of the past. There are so many aspects of this pandemic that call for our attention. Of course, the bad news of the spread of the contagion, the rising death toll and the efforts of many countries to cope with this crisis gets most headlines.
But there is good news too; dolphins returning to the coast of Italy, the waters of Venice becoming clear and the air pollution over China disappearing. Even our own skies seem brighter, with only a rare contrail visible. Things will eventually return to some normality, and being human, we will revert to patterns of behaviour familiar to us; our will we?
Let’s consider the Gospel story of today: this is one of my favourite stories of Jesus’ ministry. It has love, tenderness, and drama of no small order!
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, a family, good friends of Jesus. Mary was the sister who loved to listen to Jesus. Martha was the sister who loved to serve others. Lazarus was the brother who was ill. Each of us, from the smallest household, to the largest church, has people who like to listen, people who like to serve, and people who are sick. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They keep showing up in the New Testament, and they keep showing up in church life today.
The sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ This is the way most of us speak with Jesus. We tell him what he already knows. The Lord knows who among us is sick. and who among us is sick at heart. The Lord knows our illnesses in deeper ways than we know them, he loves us in the midst of those illnesses, and he loves us to bring our cares to him.
But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ You see, our illness, although not in any way sent by God as punishment, gains that ultimate purpose: to be used for the glory of God. Some illnesses do lead to death. They are certainly heart-rending, and at times of plague, frightening. But all illnesses can also be vessels of the glory of God. Indeed, everything, even illness, can mediate grace.
Surprisingly, on hearing that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Delay. Delay. Delay. The story of our lives. Why doesn’t Jesus drop everything he is doing and rush over to see Lazarus? We expect those who care for us to respond without delay. But, many times, it is not the people who respond most urgently and most anxiously who love us most. Often, the people who are willing to drop everything and help us are the ones least equipped to help.
The friends who help us most are those not driven by the tyranny of the urgent, those not in the biggest hurry, those who are not most anxious, those who do not panic. The ones who love us most sometimes take longer to arrive than others. So it was with Jesus. He heard the news that Lazarus was ill, and he waited two days to respond. It seemed a long time. It was not because he did not love Lazarus. When our prayers do not seem to be answered, it is not because God has not heard us.
When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she went and met him. She seemed to reproach him: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. Do we think this too? If only I was closer to Jesus, then things would have gone my way. I wouldn’t be in this hardship if Jesus has responded more quickly, or if I had been more faithful in prayer.
Similarly, when Mary saw Jesus she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ They loved Jesus, they believed that he was the Messiah, but did they believe that Jesus really came to fulfil their own, and other people’s personal, and immediate desires? Do we sometimes do the same? Are our prayers sometimes devoted to asking God for things that protect our comfort, keep us from pain? ‘If only God had done this, I would not have gone through all this pain’. That is what we all say, and we are all wrong. Jesus did not come to take away our pain, but to go through pain himself. Jesus came so that all of us could live through pain to resurrection. The hardest prayer we pray in times of trouble is ‘Thy will be done’, yet how lightly do we say this when we pray the Lord’s prayer?
Jesus wept then, and he weeps now. Jesus, the Son of God, knows sorrow and weeping. Jesus can be moved, and greatly disturbed. To love means to be vulnerable to pain. Jesus loved Lazarus, his friend; and he loved Mary and Martha and was moved by their sorrow and anguish; he loves you too, and, always at your side, weeps with you.
And then came that astonishing act. The stone removed, Jesus looked upward and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me. When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ It has been said that such is the power of God’s word, that had Jesus just said ‘Come out’, all those entombed would have come out too, a resurrection en mass.
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and wearing his grave clothes. The people must have been stupefied! Can you imagine them just standing there, rooted to the spot in amazement. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ It is easy to overlook this statement, stunned as we are by this image of Lazarus walking into the daylight in his shroud, but it really illustrates that the community assists in the resurrection. We are called to action. We are all people yearning to live resurrection lives; we come to church, we are receptive to the Word of God, we want to serve Jesus, but we can still be tangled up, still bound up in old bondages, old arguments, old sin. Jesus, therefore, proclaims to us, to all of us: ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
That is why we need to be in community. We need others. Never have we felt it so much as we do now, unable to see each other, unable to serve each other, unable to worship together, unable to give each other a hug of comfort. In ancient Israel, God was with his people in a tabernacle, a tent. He tabernacled with them, he lived among them. And later they believed that he dwelt with them in the temple; when that temple was destroyed, they thought God had left, gone. Do we feel abandoned, cut adrift as we are from our usual routine of church activity? As difficult as it may seem, let’s remember that God has not abandoned us, and that we have not abandoned each other. We can, in a different way, tabernacle together.
If you are able, check the church website. Keep in tune with church news; we are able to worship together, as we did in lighting a candle in the window last Sunday, or praying the Lord’s prayer on Wednesday morning. Use candles to create a sacred space, especially during normal worship times, and keep praying. Make that call to share information to those who are not tech savvy, and trust in God, in every circumstance, for his love and care, his grace and mercy. We will come through this together, and the love that binds us will be stronger than ever.
‘He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’